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A Hoops Boon for Cameroon

Bruins' Mbah a Moute and Aboya are raising basketball's profile in their African nation.

April 01, 2006|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

When UCLA freshmen Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute step onto the court against Louisiana State today, their obligations will go beyond merely upholding the tradition of Bruin basketball.

The duo from Cameroon will carry the hopes of a small but fervent group of basketball aficionados in their West African nation, including dozens of players who see the game as a way to better themselves and their country.

Gyms are scarce in Cameroon, mostly at Catholic schools and sometimes oddly sized. Funding from the government is even scarcer, preventing the national team from competing in the 2004 African championships and hampering the development of talent.

But the success of Aboya and Mbah a Moute might persuade sports ministry officials to redirect precious resources to basketball players who have talent and desire but few chances to hone their skills.

"Soccer is the main sport in Cameroon and draws all the attention, but hopefully in the near future we can help the government understand that basketball could be big-time," said Cameroon native Lazare Adingono, who played for the University of Rhode Island and is now its director of basketball operations, as well as assistant coach of Cameroon's national team.

The UCLA players, he said, "are the ones that are on TV, but we have a lot of kids who have equal potential but don't have exposure. We have a lot of potential here and, generally speaking, in Africa. It will take something dramatic to make the people in charge of youth programs and sports react and realize that Cameroon can have one of the better teams on the continent if everything is put together."

According to www.africabasket.com, about 100 Cameroonian players were scattered around the world this season. About 60 played for U.S. high schools, prep schools or colleges. Mbah a Moute's brother, 6-foot-8 post player Emanuel Bidias a Moute, followed his brother to Montverde Prep in Florida and recently made an oral commitment to play for UC Santa Barbara. Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, now playing in Greece, became the first Cameroonian in the NBA when he joined the Portland Trail Blazers for the 2001-02 season.

It's not easy for Cameroonians to follow their compatriots' feats.

Newspapers give basketball little attention, and TV stations usually show events such as the European championships three or four days later; NBA games are shown once a week, also delayed. Some telecasts are available from France, catering to the largely French-speaking nation.

Mbah a Moute said Friday that he uses the Internet to communicate with friends at home who watch webcasts of UCLA games. "They know what's going on from me, mostly," he said.

"It's a big deal in the basketball community there, but that's not a very big community. It's not like soccer, that's what's really big there."

NBA TV and ESPN have made foreign games more accessible, said Yves Leunde Fodjo, a teammate of Aboya and Mbah a Moute on Cameroon's youth teams. Leunde hoped to play at a U.S. prep school this season but couldn't get a visa and remains in Cameroon, playing for the national team.

"All people have seen their matches and have appreciated their performance," Leunde said. "Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya are a model for the young of the country. ...

"All people love Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya because they represent the Cameroonian basketball at a U.S.A. college. People are very excited and await the game [today]."

Gilles Bouwe, a correspondent for africabasket.com, said the two Bruins have big followings beyond their hometown of Yaounde, the country's second-largest city and home to about 1.5 million people.

"I was inland this week to cover the national high school championship," Bouwe said, "and I can tell you that many people are following the season of our two UCLA players."

Adingono said he chatted with Aboya and Mbah a Moute this week and was delighted with their progress as students, not only as players.

"You have to send huge thanks to their families, who took risks, and the prep schools and coaches who gave these kids a chance to get out of poverty and take advantage of a unique situation that has been offered to them," Adingono said.

"We have a mission, that kids who deserve an opportunity can come to the U.S. and take advantage of the academic and athletic opportunities. We want kids with the right profile to have at least a chance."

Times staff writer Mike Hiserman contributed to this report from Indianapolis.

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